Eleven years ago an Englishman called Peter Mayle followed in so many of his countrymen’s footsteps and, tired of rain and taxes, bought a house in sunny Provence. The book he wrote about his life there, truly no more than a bundle of anecdotes about funny foreigners and their enviable gastronomy, did remarkably well, despite duplications. The author made a mint and understandably produced a sequel, equally full of palatable cliches.

Evidently his fame drove so many thousands to his Provençal front door that he and his third wife were forced to abandon the place and remove to Long Island. Whence he gave us a talking canine (A Dog’s Life), following in the paws of Rudyard Kipling (Thy Servant A Dog). Mayle’s travel books, flimsy as they may be, served to remind me of my youth after the war when I first explored that classic area of Avignon, Aries, and Aix-en-Provence, not to mention the fleshpots of Nice and Cannes (in one of which I met a much-decayed “Willie” Maugham). If Mayle’s books recently lured me back to the region, they also prompted mc to escape the hordes and push on north to the Haute Provence, where, astonishingly, I found no tourists at all. It was as if I had been transported in time to when, thanks to a Vatican Count, I had seen the Sistina alone!

Just after the war, thanks to some felicitous connections, Coco Chanel lent a companion and myself her villa situated between Roquebrune and Menton called La Pausa. She was as happy to do so as I was to have the little library there to write in, one evidently used later, after the sale of the property, by Winston Churchill for his memoirs. For at the time Chanel needed the villa’s occupancy, being seared of a seizure. After all, she had just scraped through a Free French épuration invigilation in Paris and gone to hole up in Switzerland at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Ouchy, by Lausanne.

There I found her frankly fairly nutty, paranoically anti-Pierre Wertheimer, if still strikingly beautiful. La Pausa was more dilapidated than its owner when I knew it, apart from both having shown signs of German occupancy. The proprietor, and her faithful maid, had been the only French citizens allowed to live on the Rue Cambon side of the Paris Ritz during occupation. Her chief German friend (though probably not her lover) had circumspectly fled to Sweden after hostilities, while her perfume workers at Grasse were up in arms (in mollification Chanel ordered free bottles of Number Five to be handed out to GIs entering Paris, before she herself left the capital). Finally, it should be remembered that her attorney at this time was the Comte de Chambrun (pére) who was living with and later married Josette Laval, whose father was executed. By now all this is in the books, particularly one excellent biography of the tough httle beauty. That La Pausa was rundown when I lived there was par for the course in the region; the same could have been said of Consuelo Balson’s vast property at neighboring Eze. I was merely drawn to note the contrasts between then and the Maylian now.

First, there is of course the access, or fortunate lack of same. You may pick up a direct flight from New York to Nice, but you may not to Marseilles, whose airport has turned into a Kafka-esque security system, doubtless due to the influx of Algerians; in the line in front of me there I saw a priest having his socks lengthily inspected. Aix has been infected with much of the same, the leafy avenues of my youth now so many parking spaces, with single-occupancy, bulletproof glass antechambers guarding the entrance to quite harmless-looking shops, such as pharmacies.

Meanwhile, if you arc thinking of motoring from Paris to this lucky region take a St. Christopher medal with you. French autoroutes, unlike those in nearby Switzerland or Austria, are poorly marked, and if you get on the wrong one you are liable to be locked in for 50 kilometers or so. Stateside cloverleaf systems are much needed here. But to drive north for an hour or two toward the Haute Provence and the neighboring Luberon is to enter another world. My wife and I headquartered in charming, little-known Manosque which, with its narrow streets and sidewalk cafes set under chestnut trees, takes you back to early Renoir movies. In the fields around, carpeted with lavender, you are in the world of Jean Giono whose widow is still vividly alive though over 100. Virtual lakes of these lavender fields lie between Manosque and Fortqualquier; the only tourist trap in the region seems to be Moustiers Sainte-Marie, set in a superb site at the start of the Gorges de Verdon, but overpopulated with bicycle trippers when last I saw it.

Back, therefore, to the medieval hill village with their mouth-watering markets, like Riez and Valensole and, finally, little Fuste, where a two-flower restaurant awaits the weary traveler. These institutions make one sigh for France. In Fuste’s leafy garden dark-suited waiters move about the tables with the somnambulist gravity of monks at prayer. Nothing unseemly disturbs the disposition of dishes which arc shown the guest with the solicitude of one attending to an invalid or child. The kitchen is, of course, a place of art. Among the tables without the maitre presides, a scholar in his own domain, ever watchful, never obstreperous. The wines tinkle out with the authority of the rivulets of the Durance nearby. And I have cause to reflect that despite the horrible modern world that of Provence has still retained its sanity. Bon appétit!